Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Professor for one year (week 41): What's in your syllabus?

It's evaluation time again and one of my students wrote in the free form field "What else would you like to comment on":  "I don't know the learning objectives.  I searched the slides and didn't find anything."

I was offended: Why didn't she (it's a girls-only class) ask?  Of course it is in the short description of the class in the Learning Management System (we use ILIAS).  Of course it is in the short description of the class which instructors have to provide to be listed in the study management system where you find schedules, instructor information, etc.  Of course it is on the slides for the very first session -- I always have a proper slide titled "Learning objectives."

But somehow, she had missed the information.  So maybe one slide, five bullet points, or two paragraphs are not enough.

In the study management system, it looks like this:

You find all relevant information, it looks a bit structured, but no explicit learning objectives are given.  They are somehow hidden in the description field.  Instructors are asked to provide certain information (language of the course, material used, kind of exams), but they are not explicitly asked to provide learning objectives.  Maybe there should be even an extra field.

When I realized that other information is missing, too, I looked around how other instructors write a syllabus.  As a case in point I looked for writing related courses and found these:

All of them have extensive descriptions on what the course is about, what students will do, what's the motivation behind this course, comments on literature or other material used, etc.  Carrie Lamanna and Cheryl Ball have long explanations about the assignments: What do students have to do, how will the assignments be graded, and how do single assignments contribute to the final grade.  I do communicate these information, too, but I rather announce it in class and don't write it down to be read before the course starts.

Additionally, you can read the instructions for each assignment.   I only have this when I hand out the assignment.  As I found the syllabi after the courses had taken place, I cannot say if the assignments had been published before the courses started or if they had been added once at a time.

Of course it's great to find these sources and be able to use them as inspiration for your own course, but on the other hand, it means you cannot re-use those material for the next course (when I teach a similar course at another university, I often re-use assignments as there is only very little chance that students from university A have friends at university B who took my course).  And the instructors probably didn't use an LMS -- I don't think you put everything in your LMS and have an elaborate website.

If all material had been set up before the course start, this means a lot of preparation effort.  There are lists on which papers to read for which session, sometimes with comments even.  Although I have a schedule concerning which topic to cover in which session, I often search for papers one or two weeks before a particular session.  Maybe I should think about this and really invest a reasonable amount of time in proper preparation for the next classes.  Of course it helps if you teach a course for the second, third, etc. time -- you only have to look for new papers for a certain topic, but you already have all canonical material and you know how to proceed and what works in class.

What I really would like to adopt is the kind of course policy Cheryl Ball has in her syllabus.  It's an explicit list of what students can expect from this class and the instructor, and a very clear statement of what the instructor expects from the students to make this course a success for both parties.

I especially like her comments on grades: "Everyone in this class starts with a B/C.  How you participate changes that grade higher or lower."  And then follow a lot of actions influencing the grade positively or negatively.  For programming courses, when you actually can check student answers against a sample solution, grading might be a bit easier and more formally.  But in courses where there is no single right answer for an assignment, grading is much harder and usually students try to argue about grades.  So a policy on what influences the grade in a positive or negative way is really helpful -- and there should be no room for discussion left.  Everybody knows the consequences of their actions in class.

So I hope to have enough time before the next teaching appointment to spend more time for preparation and start actual teaching a bit more relaxed.

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